Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tales from Abroad, Pasadena Edition - Part 6: Burgers burgers burgers

California is the self-professed home of the hamburger, and it's only fair that I take a second or two to comment on this.

First, the famous In-N-Out Burger, a made-in-America combination of drive-thurs (the "through" way of spelling through seems to have been lost, along with night and light...) and burgers. I mean, many places have drive-thrus, but how many places are primarily a drive-thru?

Being not from 'roud these parts, I walked around the small box where a half-dozen or so part-times furiously fried, stacked, and served these legendary burgers. Not noticing a place to walk in have a seat, I figured I'd get in line - in the drive through. Luckily the woman who was taking orders informed me that I'd have better luck at the walk-up counter around the side, so I didn't have to put my life in jeoparty over a couple patties with cheese and fries.

The service, I dare say, was excellent. You could see your burger being made "fresh" as you watched, and despite my paying and forgetting my change when I went to the bathroom, when I came back, my 7 cents were handed to me with a smile. Now that's service!

The burger itself, consumed back at my hotel room, was pretty decent. I orderd a "Doubtle Doubtle", not to be confused with a way to serve coffee - two patties, two pieces of cheese, and two days off your life. The fries were made the "old fashioned way", which I would actually described as the "less flavourful" way. Burger: 4/5. Fries: 1/5.

Tops, on the other hand, served up a huge burger with half a head of lettuce stuffed in it. As far as I can tell, there's only one Tops - it's not a chain - and it lives up to its name. It's burger was huge, dripping with all kinds of sauce, and stuffed full of the usual fixins. I don't recall the beef patty being very thick, but it was good, and as their magical sauce dribbled down my hand I was, for a moment, in heaven, though too many of these burgers'll undoubtedly send you there for good. The Greek-style potato salad I ordered was alright, but nothing special. Burger: 4/5. Potato salad: 3/5.

Now that leaves Carl's Jr. This joint, with its smiling star didn't attract me at first. To be honest, the name put me off - Carl's Jr.? I thought it was Carl Jr's, and I couldn't understand what belonged to Carl that was Jr about the place. Still, I was draw inside by a sign: proclaiming the seemingly impossible: A "Big Burger" for 99 cents.

99 cents? Seriously? You can't get a pack of gum for that back home. I ventured inside, my curiosity peaked.

The service at Carl Jr's was pretty slow - people seemed to take forever before they acknowledged my existence at the counter, but in the end, slow and steady gets the burger.

"Can I get the 99 cents burger?" I inquired.

"Which kind?"

Which kind? For a dollar I get a choice? Yes indeed. You can get the "Big Hamburger", which has a thin patty but is kind of wide, the "Spicy Chicken" burger, or some other kind, ranch something, I forget.

Over a series of days I tried all thre. Then came back for two of them (the Big Burger and the Spicy Chicken). I mean, serioulsy - for $1.08 per burger what do you want?

I found out later that this same meal was $1.29 per sandwich other places in California, like downtown LA and the OC. Burgers: 3/5 average. Value: 5/5.

And now I go on a diet...

Incidentally, tomorrow (Sunday, May 24th) is Free Burger Day at Harvey's. Sometimes it does pay to live in Canada...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Battery Switching Station

Just a follow up to an old post about electric cars: While the daily commute for most people is within the range of current EV battery technology (about 60km, I believe), this limited range is still a major obstacle to the mass adoption of non-hybrid electric cars. One interesting solution is to separate car-ownership from battery-ownership and create battery switching infrastructure. Rather than stopping in a gas station, you would stop in a battery-switching station, have yours removed, a freshly charged one installed, and be on your way, all in about the time it takes to fill up a gas tank. You might think the idea is a bit pie-in-the-sky, but a start-up in California has already designed such a station and demonstrated it in Japan. Here' s the video:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tales from Abroad, Pasadena Edition - Part 5: Hollywood and the "S-word"

Sunday - second day of my only free weekend in Southern California. I decided to go into town to meet a distant relative. For some strange reason - maybe it's some deep-rooted Jewish desire to recreate the diaspora - my family seems to have relatives everywhere I end up. I can't even go to Switzerland without meeting some distant cousin, though if you're looking for a talkative, sort-of-crazy old Jewish lady, going to west LA is probably your best bet this side of the continent.

My relative is warm, friendly, and incomprehensibly talkative, but I guess that's what happens when you live alone with three birds, including the grumpiest parrot I've ever seen who, incidentally, has a curious penchant for attacking toes. We hopped in her car (leaving the grump of a bird at home), picked up her friend and headed to Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and soak up the whole crazy West-side tourist thing. We ate at the Saddle Ranch Chop House, which served up a great steak sandwich and dirty mashed potatoes, and then, because the waitress took a liking to us, a massive banana sundae. Flavour won out over common sense and I nearly killed myself with the unordered (and unjustifiable) dessert. No celebrity sightings at the Saddle Ranch, though I did walk by Jordan Prentice (from In Bruges) on my way to Long Beach Saturday.

I suppose Hollywood is one of those places that if you work there, there's something to do, but aside from a few sights, there's not a huge amount of stuff to do there. That said, it's a great place to spend a few hours. You can stare at the guys all dressed up as whatever so you can get a shot with them and slip them a buck or two (my memories of every major European city I've been to came flooding back...), and there's the usual souvenier shops where you can buy mini-Oscars (my fav was "Best Tourist"), and some of the buildings are gorgeously art deco, but once you've seen the walk of fame, the hand and foot prints, the new gorgeously-designed open-air mall (with a view of the Hollywood sign), the Kodak Theatre and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, I guess that's it. But hey, I guess that's something right there, so what am I complaining for - what do you want from a town that makes movies? Non-stop entertainment? Well, I guess if you shell out some dought you might get something for it. Still, it's something to see and I approved.

On the drive back to Pasadena (my relative's friend was nice enough to give me a life and spare me the two-hour bus/train ride with the inevitable woman talking about how half the cities in North America are going to hell with gangs and such ("It's the Columbians and El Salvadorians. People don't want to say what it is because it's not politically correct, but that's who it is, I tell you. They'll shoot up a place if you look at them wrong. Swear to God.") For some strange reason we got to talking about health care - who knows why - maybe something Obama said.

The ladies, dyed-in-wool Democrats who, if they weren't past menopause, would easily name their firstborn son "Barack" seemed skeptical about universal health care. Coming from Canada (and having lived in other industrialized countries that have health care a hell of a lot better than we do back home) I couldn't understand their hesitance, especially given their left-leaning sympathies.

"I don't understand it. If you don't work, you still get health care! And there's plenty of people who are lazy and don't want to work. Why should I pay for them? It's communism! I mean, it's socialism!"

My answer was pretty simple: yes, it's socialism, and no, that's not so bad. I tried countering their meritocratic example by suggesting one of my own: that a first-generation immigrant who works just as hard as a native-born American probably won't earn as much, but why should that stop them fro getting decent health care? I think it's insane that I can get medical treatments while the guy down the street who's trying to hold down a convenience store can't.

Then I undersood it, clear as day. American's are just against the government interfering in their lives and that's that. The whole socialism/communism fear made perfect sense when the Red Menace was a real emeny, or even at the turn of the century when industrial interests branded unions in bed with the reds (which some of them understandably were) so they could break up organized labour. There are such clear, obvious historical reasons for these fears, and socialism has been branded as the Path to Hell and an emeny both from outside and from within. The word itself is so tabboo, something between "communist" and "liberal", that whoever in the past wanted Americans so afraid of Big Government that a mere mention of the word was enough to shoot down bills directly opposed to the interests of Powers That Be.

That said, I can't imagine why people don't just put the word to rest and see that "socialism" is a political Boogeyman, just like all the other terms used to quash sensible debate about real issues - whether it is advantageous and feasable to provide universal health care to a nation of over 300,000,000 people is a big question, and, like all big questions, it's not one that's best solved by being afriad of words that your parents taught you to fear. Grow up, people. Seriously.

I mulled over this tonight as I strolled down Colorado Blvd, admring the privately owned liquor stores, joyous that I'm forced to go to a government-sanctioned LCBO (or beer store) back home to get my booze. Maybe there is something to be feared about "socialism" after all, I wonder, before remembering that Canada is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to pinko countries and where you can buy your liquor. But that's another rant for another day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tales from Abroad, Pasadena Edition - Part 4: Drama in the LBC

Week 1 in the archives is in the bag. Four more days of work start up Monday, giving me a two-day break known to most of the working world as a "week-end". Normally this concept doesn't apply to us students who have seven days a week to work or procrastinate as we choose, so I'm excited to give this "week-end" thing a try.

Today (Saturday) I went to LA. I was thinking of writing about Chinatown, Little Tokyo, the once-regal theatre district of Broadway now turned into a giant Mexican free-for-all (but I love it that way). I could write about how I had the greatest tacos of my life in a tiny restaurant on the corner, or about how I pondered the move subtle matters of love and life sitting on the sand of Long Beach amid a setting sun (and pounding music of what appeared to be a giant gay dance party - a Pride event with admission).

There's a lot to say about all of these things, but coming back I realized something: I spent over four hours today riding the train. From Pasadena to downtown, from downtown to Long Beach, and back home. Damn! That's a lot of train!

Tipping my hat to this wonderful (and cheap) form of public transportation, I've decided to share my train experiences with you.

The trips betwen downtown and Pasadena were slow, uneventful, and boring. The trips on the Blue Line, which goes through Compton to Long Beach, on the other hand, were worth the cost of a ticket in and of themselves.

I get on the southbound Blue Line where it starts, at 7th Street/Metro Center, and it all begins. For fifteen minutes or so I get a earful of these two guys swapping stories of the Eastlake Juvenile Hall and a whole bunch of cops/judge stories.

"He searched my whole bag, cause the dog was barking, right? But all he found was my dirty socks! He said what's in these, and I said "nothing man, they're just dirty, that's all!" Damn cop gave me nine more months just for having to go through my stuff, man."

"I swear, man, one time, this guy I know, he's homeless, right? And you know how homeless people sometimes are with other, right? So he wakes up on the street, where he's sleeping, y'know, and there's some guy going through his pockets! So he's like "damn, get the fuck outta my pockets!" and the other guy - can you believe it- smacks him with a two-by-four and takes his shit. Fuck, man!"

These guys go on and on about the fuck-the-police stuff ("So I told the cop, I just gotta call my mom - and he's all "why's a grown man have to call him mom for?" and I'm like "cause I gotta call my mom!" and he doesn't want me to call my mom, but I'm all "I've gotta cal lmy mom"...) not ever cluing in that mahybe cutting back a bit on the bling, baggy shorts, and general not dressing like someone who's destined to get picked up by the cops might help. Anyway, there's a bit of a ruckus going on in the middle of the train, which shuts everybody up.

A scruffy, 200+ pound middle-aged man who looks like he's been using cardboard for mattresses is sitting in the aisle seat of the train, and it looks like a skin-and-bones old one-eyed man is trying to get in, or maybe get him to move over. That's what it looked like, anyhow, but it impossible to tell what the one-eyed guy was trying to do since by this point since they'll yelling at each other and making absolutely no sense. The old man has turned to face the guy with his remaining eye and seems hell bent on getting his way - whatever it was, until a huge, ripped guy with a hand full of what looked like incense sticks from the back of the train (he would try to sell them on the train later) moves in fast and gets between them. Finally, someone to break this nonesense up. But no. Instead he claims the old guy is his dad (later he said he was his uncle - the relation, if any, was never made clear) and gets all in the fat scruffy dude's face, threatening to kick his ass.

Meanwhile the train's stopped (the Blue Line was full of delays that day) and there's a totally done-up woman behind me (who, despite her fine manicure, attenetion to makeup, and huge gold-plated heat-shaped earrings, apparently forgot to shave her hairy-legs) yelling "Y'all gotta stop! y'all are better than this!" None of the belligerents were listening - you can't come between a predator and his prety - and the fight-to-be was becoming accompanied by a chorus of dissuasion, which might have stopped the scruffy guy getting beat up on the spot, but didn't do much to make the scene not like a fight waiting to happen.

Anyway, the train resumes and eventually we get to a stop and the scruffy guy high-tails it out of there. The son/nephew/whatever sits down across from the old one-eye and they talk for the next ten minutes - about what I have no idea. All I caught was a bunch of platitudes passed off as ancient wisdom ("If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have luck as all!") and the old guy's assertion that he doesn't back down - he's just not like that. I don't know if it was his slurring his words or his general incapibility of transmitting a coherent thought, but I never managed to catch why that one-eyed old guy was ready to throw down. Neither, I suspect, did anyone else.

Whatever. Drama over. At least everything was quiet for the blind beggar who was missing a good portion of his teeth (then again, so was the old guy) who picked up two bucks and change for a speech and touching both his eyeballs to show that he was blind (not that that proves anything - Newton once experimented on his own eyeball by sticking a rod between it and the socket and moving it around).

The ride back wasn't as eventful, but it did start out with the train being late and I spent at least twenty minutes eavesdropping on one old guy complaining to another how his retirement home treats him like shit and even charges for coffee, which they don't even serve past noon. The guy behind me on the train decided to have a conversation with himself which occasionally made sense to a third party, but mostly not. A guy with a huge garbage bag full of used empty bottles wheeled onto the train with a bike. When he rode off he had the bottles in front of him and the bike barely under control. A woman who you could've sworn was a guy was talking to someone on the phone. She was wearing a baggy long-sleeve shirt neatly tucked into her baggy suit pants and had tattoos of a naked woman on her neck/face and numbers across her hand. Whoever she was talking to must've either not spoke English well or must have been straight-up stupid since she kept on saying the same over and over question a half-dozen times ("You sound like Suzy!" "Yeah, you sould like Suzy!" "I said you sound like Suzy!")

There's something about the Blue Line that brings out the right kind of crowd for oddness - a combination of South-Central LA and straight-up crazies who seem to have a thing for Long Beach. Certain smells enter the train that no one would normall expect, and there's enough bling to give those cash-for-gold guys an immediate hard-on - assuming they can't tell the real gold rings from the fake "diamond"-studded letters swinging aroud guys necks.

So an eventful couple of rides. Under Siege 2 it ain't, but what do you want for a buck twenty-five? I can hardly get to sleep tonight, eager to await what wonders will come tomorrow when I take the bus. Wish me luck.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tales from Abroad, Pasadena Edition - Part 3: Archive Life

On May 11, 1918 Richard Phillips Feynman was born. Hundreds of physics papers, textbooks and talks, dozens of years of fruitful, active research, three wives, and one Nobel prize later, lay in a hospital bed, his body ridden with cancer. Waking up from his coma he opened his eyes one last time and muttered "This dying is boring." Not much longer the boredom ceased.

That was 1988.

On May 11 2009 Ari Gross, aspiring historian and philosopher of science plunged into Richard Feynman's personal archives at Caltech. Undaunted by the imposing volume of calculations, letters, and course notes, our intrepid researcher was determined to seek out every last diagram drawn, uncover their historical origins, and be able to say something interesting about visualization in scientific reasoning. Five years later he was hired with immediate tenure for his brilliant ideas that changed the way everyone, including his brilliant supermodel girlfriend, thinks about science.

OK, so I made the last part up.

For all its potential gains, archival work is wonderfully unglamorous. I got lost the first morning finding the archives - apparently they're not in the basement but in the sub-basement - no possibility of the sun coming anywhere close you. Just to rub it in, you know? Seriously, I find myself wondering why I flew all the way out to California to spend six hours a day sitting in an air-conditioned room two stories below ground when there are palm trees - palm trees! - and a cloudless sky waiting for me outside. Still, I'm not going back empty handed, and come hell, high water, or the quake of the century I'm determined to get all the information I can get my hands on to understand how Feynman came up with his diagrams and about two or three other possible paper topics, just for good measure (or in case someone publishes his thesis on this, which I learned today, may actually be happening as I type - it looks like I'll have to head home with more information than I expected, just in case).

I've gotten in a decent routine. I wake up at 7, slowly haul myself out of bed and stroll down for the all-too-continental breakfast for a bite before walking 20-25 minutes to the Caltech campus. Then I flip through pages and pages, looking for Feynman's doodles or anything that might help me understand them, and then lunch. There's a sandwich place on campus nearby, the Broad. Apparently it's tried a bunch of menus but they all failed - sandwiches it is. I tried their "Coal-miner" sandwich - not bad, if you can get your head around why you would ever combine turkey with pastrami. It's served with a couple slices of orange, a half a pickle and two chillies that will murder your tongue dead. I was seriously unprepared for those chillies, and I normally love spicy food. Ah, the wonders of bordering Mexico...

There's the campus cafeteria as well, which can also be quite nice. For 6-something I picked up a chicken breast with rice and veggies (though you could taste the frozen from the veggies). Today I decided to have a tostita loaded with rice, beans, meatballs with all the fixins. Apparently they charged for that one by the ounce. Be warned: if it's per weight, get lettuce or go home - there's no reason anyone should pay $15 for a couple of tacos.

One o'clock rolls around and it's back to the archives. I rifle through boxes of stuff that only crazy people would even think of looking at for the next three hours. Letters about giving guest lectures in Brazil. Rambling calculations in idiosyncratic notation. Discussions of how to best achieve a finite relativistic Lagrangian path-integral formation of a free (self-interacting) electron, nevermind how to deal with vacuum polarization. You know, your everyday quantum electrodynamics stuff. I scour over pages and pages of notes trying desperately to find a date on something, anything, that could give me a clue of whether or not a particular one-inch-large doodle was written in 1948 or 1949.

(Seriously, scientists of the future, if you ever want your ground-breaking work to be studied after you're dead, please, for the love of nature or god, stick a date at the top of each and every page you ever write anything on. You'll be making things easier for your future hagiographers, I mean, critical-thinking historians.)

And then four o'clock rolls around and I'm out the door, shunted back into bright sunlight shining through the cloudless sky that is Southern California. I stroll back to my hotel, sip the finest bottle of white Californian wine four dollars can buy, watch some TV (I'm halfway through the Wire... damn that show's good) and hit the hay. Or maybe I'll talk to a prof and get told why the best history is technical, line-by-line, equation-reproducing work, or why there's someone who's about to write up what I'm doing and his stuff is actually quite good, well thought out, and about to go to press. Tomorrow I hope to see a couple of philosophers of biology talk about something Darwin-y (this being the 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species, and all).

Excitement all around. Archives, I salute you! Salute me back with my dream-find tomorrow and we'll call it even.

Post Script: I have recently become aware that my girlfriend, who undoubtedly brilliant, does, one day, intend to become a supermodel. Now if only I could get that instant tenure...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tales from Abroad, Pasadena Edition - Part 2: America, Land of the Large

Over the years I've been roped into countless (and pointless) debates over how different (if at all) Canada is from the US. While I've come to increasingly ask "how is one part of the US (or Canada) different from others?", there's something to be said about America that walking around today in Pasadena seems to have confirmed: America is all about being epically large.

That's something you hear about "everything's bigger in" Texas, but it's just as valid when dealing with a suburb of LA. American California, being at earliest a 19th century phenomena, is partly due to the fact that the people coming over this way had plenty of room to spread out (not to mention a little gold and a lot of incredible weather). This "tons of space" mentality seems to persist - along one of the main drags (Colorado Blvd) your average store often seems large enough to cram in a dozen or so Dutch cafes.

Being without a car (a rarity for this neck of the woods) I walked around the city for hours, soaking in the sights. I saw hundreds of pained-cement buildings, built at a time where art deco was being welding together a sense of progressive modernity and imperial grandeur (Pasadena's majestic City Hall was a particular highlight: a secular temple, half baroque, half art deco, and all California). I saw the local residents, some too strange for words, some too large for belief (I always have to remind myself that weighing several hundred pounds is the norm around here), and some with darkened skin and sweaty brows, tired from a lifetime of toiling under the endless sun.

I checked into the Pacific Asia Museum (more on this another day), and after hours of walking around under a cloudless sky I needed food. My continental breakfast was a little too continental - an English muffin, a tiny danish, and an awkward piece of bread trying to pass itself off as a bagel were my only sustenance. I needed food. Real food. American food. I had a Big American Hunger and I needed a Big American Lunch.

Enter Chipotle. I walked into this new and exciting fast food joint in search of a burrito. Things did not go smoothly at first. Being unfamilier with the burrito construction process (not knowing which bringly coloured sauce is what, which type of bean you should have with with a shredded pork, etc.) I asked the man serving me to "make it like you think it should be made". Waiters in general and fast food workers in particular hate it when you tell them to select what goes into your meal - it slows down and forces the question "what should go in a burrito?" - a deep philosophical question that you're simply not prepared to deal with when staring down a line of hungry customers and worrying about inadvertently serving some indecisive tex-mex-FOP (fresh off the plane) something they might not like.

Still, the burrito got wrapped, and even though I was annoyed that guacamole costed more (which no one told me), and that the water disperser yielded some strange ice-tea-like liquid, I was now in possession of a Big American Burrito, by far the largest object to be called a burrito I have witnessed to date. It was twice as big as my fist, juat smaller than my head, and probably contained more calories than most people in the developing world get in a week. It made the local Toronto Big Fat Burrito look like a big fat shame. I tried to eat it slowly, but gluttony gave in. When I came to my senses the burrito had vanished, and I found myself holding a mangled piece of tin foil with sauce drizzling down my wrist. The burrito was kicking in. I wanted a Big American Nap.

Whether or not America's largeness is desirable, beneficial, or sustainable is something the country is going to have to ask sooner or later. In the meantime, I'll raise a 2 liter Super Big Gulp to America's largeness and hope that the Caltech Archives will be as full of useful sources as California is people.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Your Best Recession Asset: Yourself

I've been watching an interview with Warren Buffett today ("The Billionaire Next Door: Restoring Trust"). He made an interesting comment about the most important resource you have in a recession: yourself. If you have skills, the claim goes, you'll always be able to compete for a chunk of that market. Therefore, don't worry too much about what currency you should buy, or whether silver and gold are good bets to buy and hold - instead, try to make yourself marketable and make sure you've got the skills to pay the bills (OK, he didn't quite put it that way).

Wise words? I wonder.

Tales from Abroad, Pasadena Edition - Part 1: Goin' Down California Way...

For those of you who have read my postings but don't exactly know what I do, I fully intend to do an epic post someday on what exactly History and Philosophy of Science is. That should (eventually) make clear(er) why exactly I'm in Pasadena, California. The short answer is this: Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman taught here for over twenty years and the majority of his personal papers are in the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) archives. I'm studying him, so I need to be here. Like I said, that's the short answer - I'll fill you in on the details of my project as I go along.

For all the doom and gloom surrounding the tanking economy, you'll be ecstatic to hear that there's an upside to all of this: cheap flights. A few weeks ago I managed to book the cheapest flight I've ever seen listed on Air Canada from Toronto to Los Angeles and ensure myself a couple of weeks (9 days total) digging around in the Caltech archives for some serious research. I've sworn time and time again never to fly Air Canada again, for all the trouble I've had with it for a variety of reasons. But, like a durnkard's Sunday morning vow, I keep coming back. This time, however, everything actually went well and my flights were, dare I say, enjoyable.

Toronto to Calgary, Calgary to Los Angeles - 4 and 3 hour flights, respectively. For "short" flights free food seems to have been replaced by a free entertainment centre that actually worked (the first time I used it years ago it kept on crashing on me). Several episodes of 30 Rock, Mad Men, and the like later, I was ready to land and all was well in the world. Books help too, obviously, but when you're perusing the dozens of movies the little touchscreen in front of you has, the printed word has a remarkable way of getting pushed aside.

Coming into Pasadena was also remarkably easy. Get on the FlyAway bus from the airport ($6) and take the Metrolink Gold line train ($1.25) and you're there. I can't say it was the fastest possible way of doing things, but for $7.25 it got me there alright.

Navigation to the hotel from the Metrolink stop was easy. The moon's pretty full tonight, and a full moon at midnight is due South in the sky. Navigating by the moon takes some practice (it's phase dependent), but it's worth it if you can at least ballpark where South is.

My lodgings for the next two weeks will be the Saga Motor Hotel. From everything I can tell about this place arriving at 11PM, it seems fine. The room's plenty large and fully equipped with the best view of a parking lot money can buy. They've got a pool (it's outdoors, this being California and all), but it looks bigger in the pictures.

Anyway, It's a little past midnight here, which is 3AM, Toronto time. I sense my lunch (bagel and a cookie) and supper (the same, minus the bagel) are insufficient to keep me going much longer. I'll keep these postings quasi-regular until I return, May 22.